Instant Observations: Familiar Issues Arise Again In Third Straight Loss to Michigan

Another year and another disappointment for Ohio State in The Game. While this year’s edition was more competitive than the previous two, some of the same old issues reared their ugly head this afternoon in a 30-24 loss in Ann Arbor.

1. I’m not sure you could have drawn up a worse start for Ohio State. Three people the Buckeyes needed to be at their best today made critical mistakes on the first three drives. First Emeka Egbuka, who was going to have the prime matchup all day, drops an easy first down that would have helped gain some early momentum.

Then Ryan Day mishandles the 4th and short situation on the second drive. Xavier Johnson was closer than the spot he was given. Press for a review? Line up and try to draw Michigan offside before taking a delay? Or just go for it anyway? A lot of different options there but out came the punt team immediately. Just way too conservative in a must-win game.

Then a really bad INT by Kyle McCord and before you know it, despite Michigan doing nothing offensively and OSU actually showing some signs of having the ability to move the ball, you’re in a 7-0 hole.

2. The last drive of the second half was even more perplexing from Day. The offense had steadied itself and was starting to really move the ball. You have 4th and 2 at the 35, a kicker who hasn’t even attempted a 50+ yard field goal for you this season and is just 3/5 from 40-49 yards and you take your offense off the field?

There was very little downside to going for it there and it wasn’t just about trying to get a touchdown, you could have made the field goal much easier for your kicker. Just another missed opportunity. Michigan was the more aggressive team in terms of its decision making today and it was rewarded for it.

3. Which brings me to my next thing. What is Ryan Day’s philosophy on fourth down and short? It varies from game to game. It can’t continue to be this way. You’re either the Philadelphia Eagles and Nick Sirianni or you’re Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz. Pick a lane. You’re a team that wants to be aggressive and force the issue and stress defenses for four downs or not. That’s a mindset and it can’t change from week to week and it certainly can’t become *less* aggressive as the competition gets tougher.

4. The turnover battle was going to be critical in this one. That was a tough mistake for McCord to make inside his own 20, just can’t make that mistake in that area of the field. Ohio State has to find a way to not only avoid these in this game but to create some turnovers of their own. The Buckeyes have thrown four interceptions in this game the past two years and have not turned Michigan over in either game.

5. Why do these slow starts keep happening offensively? What is the fix? Day is outstanding at second half adjustments offensively and finding things to tweak after he gets a good look at what the defense is giving him, but these slow starts were a problem pretty much all year long. To my knowledge, Day does not script plays. Perhaps scripting the first 10 plays is worth consideration this off-season.

6. Spare me the 23-points argument (nobody is blaming the defense for the first 7), the defense failed again and failed big. Michigan scored points on all of its second half drives and six of its last seven drives in this game. The offense has to take responsibility for another slow start and for its inexcusable early turnover, but you don’t win rivalry games when your opponent punts one time in the final 52 minutes of the game.

7. The defense was better on the stat sheet in 2022 than it was 2021 and better on the stat sheet this season than in 2022, but holding the Indiana’s of the world in check isn’t enough at Ohio State. It’s not only concerning that the defense once again faltered in the second half of a big game, but it’s now a pattern of a complete lack of situational awareness.

In the Peach Bowl, the defense simply needed to make UGA earn it in the fourth quarter. Instead you’re in cover 0 and give up a one-play touchdown drive. A long scoring drive in that situation and Ohio State wins that game. Today, with 8 minutes left, down 3, you need a quick possession. You need to bring some extra pressure and take a chance or two to get Michigan off-schedule. Instead it was just four and five yards at a time all the way down the field until the clock was completely bled.

Giving up an explosive play and still holding to a field goal is a better outcome. Hell, I’d argue the old one-play touchdown drive would have been better outcome as at least you would have had seven minutes left to get two scores. But just about the worst possible thing happened, a long sustained drive to bleed the clock, get points, and make it a really tough proposition for the offense.

Just staggeringly poor situational defense again when it matters most.

8. Last year at this time, I told everyone there was still a very realistic and clear path for Ohio State to make the College Football Playoff. While there is a non-zero chance of that happening, the path this year is much, much more difficult. The Buckeyes need all of the following to happen after near-upsets fell through again today; Florida State must lose a game, Washington must beat Oregon again, Georgia must beat Alabama, and Texas must lose in the Big 12 title game.

One of those things happening? Very likely. Two of those happening? Possible, maybe even probable. Three? Highly unlikely. Four? Get your rosaries out.

9. This was The Narrative Game, as I said all week. It’s going to be a very interesting offseason in Ann Arbor, but the narrative coming out of this game was going to swing wildly in one direction or another. Either desperate Michigan had to start cheating to beat Ohio State or Ohio State simply lacks the right ingredients to compete with this type of Michigan team and sign-stealing or not, Michigan is just better right now. Regardless of what the NCAA does here, it’s going to be a tough pill to swallow inside the WHAC that the narrative for at least the next 370 days is going to be the latter, not the former.

10. There are a lot of things that on the surface seem fixable and relatively straight forward in terms of how to fix them, regardless of which side of the isle you’re on and what you think about certain coaches or players. Too conservative on fourth and short? Simply start going for it more. Don’t like the QB or OL play? Have an open competition this spring and hit the portal to help drive that competition if you feel you need to (especially on the OL).

But there just seems to be a bit of an identity crisis at play here and not enough complementary football. I don’t like watching the Baltimore Ravens. I don’t think Michigan is particularly entertaining to watch either. But they know who they are and they build their roster and mindset around that identity and what they do defensively or on special teams complements the offense and vice versa.

What type of defense are you? We’ve seen ultra aggressive and ultra conservative in back-to-back years. What type of offense are you? Stop worrying about the silly “toughness” issue. If you want to be a 7on7 team, go be a 7on7 team where at least your defense knows that it might get put into some sudden change situations but that’s your identity and you instill that in practice every day.

But don’t waffle between styles, worry about “perceived toughness”, and go back and forth between whether you’re a risk taker or risk averse. Like I said above, it’s time for this program to pick a lane. There needs to be synergy between the offense and defense and within the offense and defense. If that isn’t figured out in the next two months, I’m not sure any of the other stuff really matters.

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